ARMED CONFLICT: Spotlight on Iraq


The Islamic State
A history of conflict
The Iran-Iraq war
The first Gulf war
The second Gulf war
Human rights abuses

The Islamic State

700 children killed

Reports of atrocities committed by Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, led by the jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - now called Islamic State - continue to horrify the world. Hundreds of thousands of people across northern Iraq are fleeing ethnic cleansing by ISIL. According to UN monitoring, up to 700 children have been killed or maimed in Iraq since the beginning of the year, including in summary executions.

News broke on Friday 15 August that in the space of an hour ISIL fighters massacred at least 80 men from the Yazidi faith in a village in northern Iraq and abducted thousands of women and children. The United Nations said it had evidence that militants had killed as many as 670 prisoners in Mosul and had carried out further abuses in Iraq that amounted to crimes against humanity.

Since 3 August, when the armed group began its march to take control of the territory surrounding Sinjar, it has killed hundreds of Yazidis, abducted thousands, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes. Read testimonies from Kocho: the village ISIL tried to wipe off the map gathered by Amnesty International.

Ethnic cleansing

ISIL was formed in April 2013 under its former name, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda, but has become one of the main militant groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq. Read a briefing on the Sunni-Shia’a conflict.

ISIL has been killing, kidnapping, and threatening religious and ethnic minorities since mid June when, in a rapid advance, ISIL-led forces took control of a number of cities in Iraq. They quickly established strongholds in Anbar Province and spread into central and northern Iraq, threatening the unity of the State. They also seized large sections of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and have a presence in a number of towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.

However, it was the conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, in June that sent shockwaves around the world. In July, ISIL ordered all Christians in Mosul to convert to Islam, pay “tribute” money, face death or leave Mosul by 19 July.

Hundreds of thousands displaced

The recent fighting in Sinjar and other areas close to Mosul, Dohuk and Kirkuk has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The cities of Dohuk and Khanik are overwhelmed by families who have fled the fighting in Sinjar and elsewhere in northern Iraq. Many of them spent days without food and water on Mount Sinjar before finally finding refuge in schools, cultural centres and buildings under construction. According to the UN refugee agency, in all, there are more than 1.2 million internally displaced people in Iraq.

The UN Human Rights Council held a special session on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Iraq. The Council adopted a resolution urging an immediate end to the acts of violence and abuses committed against civilians in Iraq, particularly against children and people from various ethnic and religious communities and requesting the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to urgently dispatch a mission to Iraq to investigate alleged violations and abuses committed by the ISIL and associated groups.

During the UN Security Council’s second open debate on children and armed conflict this year, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, said that “ISIL has tasked boys as young as 13 to carry weapons, guard strategic locations or arrest civilians [and] other children are used as suicide bombers”.

US warplanes have been striking ISIL targets since 8 August in support of Kurdish and Iraqi forces.  The UK, France, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy and Albania have all agreed to provide the Kurdish peshmerga militia with small arms, ammunition and other supplies. In an article published by Al Jazeera, the analyst Sharif Nashashibi explains that “The expansion and barbarity of the Islamic State group leaves no doubt that it must be stopped without delay. [...] As such, it would be difficult for those with the ability to intervene not to do so. However, they must ensure that they do not end up doing more harm than good - that is no easy feat. Taking on the Islamic State group carries great risks, despite the necessity of doing so. [...] Middle Easterners are inherently suspicious of Western intervention in the region given its destructive record. [...] In the case of Britain and particularly the US, the disastrous legacy of their invasion and occupation of Iraq is ongoing.”

A history of conflict

Iraq gained independence in 1932 and a British-installed monarchy came into power thereafter, only to be toppled by a military coup in 1968 led by the Arab nationalist Ba’ath party, which promoted pan-Arab and radical leftist ideas.

The Ba’athist takeover made way for Saddam Hussein’s ascent to power in 1979. Saddam Hussein consolidated totalitarian control of the country, excluding and persecuting large proportions of the population, particularly the Shia majority in the South and the Kurds in the North. Saddam’s regime committed human rights abuses on a vast scale against the opposition and was responsible for the mass murder of a number of groups. Infamously, in 1988, thousands of people were reported to have been killed and many others injured in a poison gas attack by the Iraqi government on a Kurdish city in northern Iraq.

The Iran-Iraq war

Iraq invaded Iran on 22 September 1980, triggering a bitter eight-year war which devastated both countries.

Saddam Hussein felt directly threatened by the Islamic revolution which had brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran the year before. The ayatollah, for his part, saw Saddam as a brutal tyrant oppressing his country's Shia majority.

Both sides acted with a marked disregard for the human cost of the conflict. Khomeini sent thousands of young Iranians to their death in "human-wave" attacks and Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranians. Both sides pounded the civilian population in heavy air strikes.

A ceasefire was reached in July 1988 with neither side achieving its aims. Half a million people are thought to have died in the war, which is often compared to the first world war and remains one of modern history's bloodiest conflicts.

The first Gulf war

In August 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, Iraq's oil-rich neighbour. Kuwait's defence forces were rapidly overwhelmed, and those that were not destroyed retreated to Saudi Arabia.

Quickly, the UN Security Council (SC) unanimously denounced the invasion, demanded Iraq's immediate withdrawal from Kuwait and imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq.

On 29 November, the SC passed a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq if it failed to withdraw by 15 January 1991. Hussein refused to withdraw his forces from Kuwait, which he had established as a province of Iraq, and some 700,000 allied troops, primarily American, gathered in the Middle East to enforce the deadline.

On 16 January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began as the first fighter aircrafts were launched from Saudi Arabia and off US and British aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Operation Desert Storm was conducted by an international coalition under the command of the US and featured forces from 32 countries, including Britain, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

During the next six weeks, the allied forces engaged in an intensive air war against Iraq's military and civil infrastructure and encountered little effective resistance from the Iraqi forces. On 24 February, a massive coalition ground offensive began, and Iraq's outdated and poorly supplied armed forces were rapidly overwhelmed. By the end of the day, the Iraqi army had effectively folded and a few days later Kuwait was liberated.

The Security Council passed resolution 687, specifying conditions for a formal end to the conflict. Despite lifting a few sanctions, the ban on Iraqi oil sales would continue until Iraq destroyed its weapons of mass destruction under UN supervision. Iraq accepted the resolution but Saddam Hussein frequently violated the terms of the peace agreement, prompting further allied air strikes and continuing UN sanctions.

About 10 percent of the 85,000 tonnes of bombs dropped in the six-week air campaign were so-called smart bombs.The allied forces were keen to emphasise what they depicted as the minute accuracy of their weapons. But, according to a Pentagon report published in 1997, the performance of the ‘smart bombs’ was grievously overstated, which explains the frequent use of terms like "collateral damage" and "surgical strike" in the allied forces briefings. But controversy flared around certain attacks such as the 13 February attack on what the allies had pinpointed as an important command and control bunker that turned out to be a shelter used by Iraqi civilians during the air raids. At least 315 people were killed, 130 of them children.

They are no clear figures on the total number of civilian casualties in the war, but estimates of civilian deaths as a direct result of the war range from 100,000 to 200,000.

The second Gulf war

In March 2003, the US and UK called on the Security Council to authorise military action against Iraq for different reasons including to disarm Iraq of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), but were met with stiff opposition from France, Russia, Germany and several Arab countries. Despite this, on 19 March, US and UK forces launched a massive military operation to invade Iraq. After quickly defeating the Iraqi army and ousting the Ba’athist government, US President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations on 1 May 2003, but the armed forces remained in Iraq until December 2011.

The invasion of Iraq was initiated over the threat of Iraqi WMD and Saddam Hussein’s failure to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. However, many questioned both the truth of this justification and the legality of the invasion as it occurred. No chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons were ever found and in 2004, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, called the US led invasion “illegal” and in contravention of the UN Charter.

It quickly emerged that the Bush and Blair governments had manipulated sceptical intelligence reports on these matters in order to support a political decision to launch a war for Saddam Hussein's removal.

The invasion set off a Sunni-led insurgency - that attacked the coalition forces and their supporters to resist foreign occupation of their country - and a rise in Shiite militias. Shiite and Sunni militias began to clash and carry out revenge attacks and many Iraqis fled their homes as neighbourhoods became increasingly segregated. The insurgency has resulted in a polarisation of ethnic identities.

By 2006, the combination of foreign occupying forces, Sunni and Shiite militias, and groups such as al-Qaeda plunged the country into civil war. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite sites, in mid-2006 is linked to an escalation in violence that particularly hit civilians. On 19 August 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was killed by a bomb attack by Sunni insurgents at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which also left at least 14 others dead and dozens more  injured in what Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced as an inexcusable "act of unprovoked and murderous violence."

The US-led occupation did not create stability, and sectarian violence continued after the end of the occupation. When US troops left Iraq, the country had become something close to a failed State. Iraqis were left with a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population.

Torture in detention

US and British forces tortured Iraqi detainees at their facilities across Iraq, most famously at the Abu Ghraib prison. And despite knowing there was a clear risk of torture, US  authorities transferred thousands of Iraqi detainees to Iraqi custody, where state security forces have continued the torture tradition. Iraqi interrogators routinely abuse detainees, regardless of sect, usually in order to coerce confessions.

According to Human Rights Watch, the abuses US officials allegedly authorised in the early years of the war in Iraq, and their tacit or direct complicity in Iraq abuses throughout the occupation, are all partly responsible for the entrenchment of weak and corrupt institutions in the country.

Similarly, despite growing numbers of claims of serious abuses committed against detainees in British custody in Iraq, UK authorities have neither set in motion a full and comprehensive public inquiry into the abuse, nor held senior-level officials accountable for war crimes committed in the country.

As of 12 May 2008, US military authorities were holding 513 Iraqi children as “imperative threats to security,” and have transferred an unknown number of other children to Iraqi custody, where they are at risk of physical abuse.

Between 2003 and 2008, the US detained some 2,400 children in Iraq, including children as young as ten. Detention rates rose dramatically in 2007 to an average of 100 new children a month from 25 a month in 2006.

More on human rights abuse:

In 2010, the organisation War Child asked 180 children in southern Iraq about what scares them and what makes them feel safe. The most common fears expressed by the children were conflict-related. Many mentioned guns, explosions, kidnappings and tanks as the main things that scare them.

According to the Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council  (A/68/878–S/2014/339) issued on 15 May 2014, in 2013:

  • At least 248 children were killed and 665 injured in 2013, including as a result of improvised explosive devices and in complex attacks. This is the highest number of casualties reported since 2008.

  • Reports indicated the continued association of children with various armed groups.

  • Reports were received on boys manning the checkpoints under the control of the Ministry of Defence after having been recruited locally with falsified identification papers.

  • According to the Government, at least 391 children, including 18 girls, were being held in juvenile reformatory detention facilities (237), prisons or police stations under indictment or conviction for terrorism-related charges under article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (2005).

  • Twenty-seven attacks on schools and hospitals/medical facilities were reported, of which five were verified.

Child recruitment

According to the Report of United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on the Protection of Civilians in the Non International Armed Conflict in Iraq (covering the period between 5 June  and 5 July 2014):

Children have been disproportionately affected by the current conflict. In all conflict-affected areas, child casualties due to indiscriminate or systematic attacks by armed groups and by Government shelling on populated areas have been on the rise. Credible information on recruitment and use of children as soldiers was also received and the United Nations has started documenting cases despite the sensitivity of the information and fears of families. Children are recruited by armed opposition groups, including ISIL and associated armed groups, and used as informants, for manning checkpoints and in some cases as suicide bombers. On the other hand, children are also increasingly being recruited by militias from all sides, including those supported by the Government.

Violence against women and girls

Since 2003, the deterioration of the security situation in the country has promoted a rise in tribal customs and religiously-inflected political extremism, which have had a deleterious effect on women’s rights, both inside and outside the home.

Militias have targeted women and girls for assassination, and intimidated them to stay out of public life. Increasingly, women and girls are victimised in their own homes, sometimes killed by their fathers, brothers and husbands for a wide variety of perceived transgressions that allegedly shame the family or tribe.

Trafficking in women and girls in and out of the country for sexual exploitation is widespread.

Iraqis displaced as a result of the ongoing atrocities committed by the ISIL tell horrible stories of women and girls kidnapped to used as sex slaves by ISIL fighters.  

Read a briefing on minorities in Iraq.



UN documentation:

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq

Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict

UN News Centre

Media outlets:

Al Jazeera:


The Guardian:

The New York Times:

The History Channel


Civil Society Organisations:

Minority Rights Group:

Human Rights Watch:

International Committee of the Red Cross:

Amnesty International:

War Child:

The Council on Foreign Affairs:



Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.